Why Do Writers Write?

I know the exact day I became a writer. It was Friday 23rd April 2004 and I was walking to work. As I dodged the rush hour traffic, a story unspooled into my mind that was so compelling I knew I must write it down. I arrived at work, grabbed some paper and scribbled down the scenes in a frenzy.

This had never happened before. I stared at the barely legible scrawl and wondered if I was possessed. The story was about a woman trying to find her way out of a confusing situation. No surprise there. But then I realised it was based on the Buddhist idea of the realms of samsara. I had been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche and it must have taken root. In an attempt to process and understand this complex Buddhist cosmology, my unconscious had created a waking dream.

So why did I suddenly start to write? Perhaps it had been brewing for a while, waiting for the perfect moment. Up to that point my creativity had been channelled into music. It never occurred to me that I might have other talents. I was blinkered by minims and crotchets, and if anyone had told me I would one day write novels, I would have laughed at the idea.

Writers write for all sorts of reasons. Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Self-exploration
  • Creative self-expression
  • Therapeutic mental laxative
  • Shameless self-promotion
  • To communicate and connect
  • To make meaning
  • To get approval
  • To get laid
  • To impress
  • To rewrite history
  • Fame!
  • Money!
  • Something to do while you wait to die

Or all the above.

I’ve probably written for all these reasons at various times – except fame, money and getting laid 😦 . But what keeps me going, despite the frustrations and the impossibility of capturing experience in words, is that I feel better when I write.

Not necessarily while I’m actually writing. There are good days, and bad. When it’s going well, the writing flows. The stories just seem to be there. Characters talk to me, scenarios suggest themselves, interesting dilemmas hijack my imagination. Those are the days I feel like a writer.

The bad days are a form of torture – death by words, or the absence of the right words. On those days I feel even more like a writer.

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” – Byron

In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell identified four reasons for writing: “sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.” He says these motives exist in all writers in differing proportions that vary over time, but ultimately concludes:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

Massive ego-mania or the desire to transcend the conditioning that makes you who you are? Perhaps it’s to do with living an examined life, to rise above the crowd instead of blindly following the herd. It’s the Promethean impulse towards consciousness and knowledge. Don DeLillo sees writing as a ‘personal freedom’:

“It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

Many writers are driven by their obsessions, the things that keep them awake at night, the ideas that never resolve themselves and will never be understood. Sometimes you don’t have any choice about the kinds of stories you end up telling. As Anne Rice says, “When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.

Despite the struggle, writers wouldn’t keep writing if they didn’t get something positive from the experience. And since most writers never make any money, it must be about something else. Maybe writing is just fun. As Terry Pratchett reminds us, “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.”

“The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising… and it’s magic and wonderful and strange.” – Neil Gaiman

And if you do find readers for the words you’ve written, that brings a whole new dimension to the experience. Stephen King says that ultimately, writing is about “enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well…It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.

Book that will change your life

Humans are the story-telling ape. Everybody lives inside their own story. You know things about yourself no one else will ever know. You see the world in a way no one else could ever imagine. This is the glory, and tragedy, of human consciousness. It’s lonely inside your skull.

Writing turns your mind inside out.

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg says: “..we all have a dream of telling our stories – of realising what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.

The more I write the more I realise that I need to write, like I need to eat and drink and sleep. It makes me feel more alive, even on the bad days, because it means I’m actively engaged with my life. It may be easier in the short-term to sit on my arse and watch TV. Long-term, I’d get fat and bored and depressed.

I write because it wakes me up and keeps me positive. It reminds me that I must choose to live.

So, it doesn’t really matter why you write, as long as you do it. Because doing it is better than not doing it.

Why do you write? Are you a raging ego-maniac or a selfless explorer of inner worlds? Whatever your reasons, keep writing…


8 thoughts on “Why Do Writers Write?

  1. Interesting one Jess! It’s great that you don’t write for money and fame and getting laid LOL. I think it keeps your writing pure and genuine. I really enjoy reading your posts, they’re alive!! Keep that passion going and don’t ever give up writing 🙂
    For me, I’m mostly writing movie reviews, and yes it’s so enjoyable. I’m into flash fiction but I may start writing seriously like a novel or something in the future! You’ve certainly inspired me.

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  2. Sometimes we’re story telling apes. Mostly we’re story hearing apes. And story appropriating apes. We take bits of other people’s stories and try to fit them to our lives and our lives to the stories.

    It’s all a bit sad really. Stories tend to have beginnings, middles, ends, narrative arcs and a kind of internal logic. Everything happens for a reason and some kind of meaning eventually becomes evident. Not like life at all really.

    Herman Hesse once wrote a story called The Prodigy. A young man grows up and acquires knowledge, skills, insights and a complex, interesting personality. He is obviously going places. But he just falls in a river and drowns. End of story. Jeff Buckley must have liked it.

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